This is a strange thing for me to write about, but I think it’s something worth saying.
In May last year I was sexually assaulted here in Indonesia.
I live on the compound where my school is and we have barbed wire fences as well as 24 hour security guards. There is no imminent threat to our safety (plenty of expats live out in the community), but there is always the possibility of something happening in a place like this. Given that we are a school, it is right for us to protect our students and their physical safety. We have two student dorms on campus.
There is no need for me to go into details, but in short a guard came to my house and I opened the door to him because I couldn’t tell what he wanted. It turns out that what he wanted wasn’t something I was willing to give. I managed to shove him backwards out the door, slam it and lock it after he didn’t take no for an answer, and then called for help.
I was so impressed by the people around me and how I was cared for. The people who look after the campus immediately flew into action and had the man removed at once (obviously he’s never allowed back on campus). They kept me informed at all times and let me know exactly how things were being dealt with. My sending organisation was also very supportive in making sure that I was looked after and had access to anything I needed.
The way of dealing with conflict here is unpleasant. All our guards are local Papuan men and violence is a very normal part of the way that people deal with each other. On the night this happened the other guards took this man and asked our white leadership to leave so they could deal with him ‘culturally’. This basically means they beat him badly to teach him a lesson. I’m not sure how I feel about this, but it wasn’t my decision, and this is how they deal with conflict, so… It is what it is I guess.
Keep in mind that these are all Christian men from one of the local churches.
I was offered the opportunity to go to the police if I wanted, but I was also told what would happened if I did, so I chose not to. It was likely that the police would beat him even worse, throw him in a cell for the night, then let him go. Then I’d have to fill out paperwork, be on record and get involved with the local police in a way that I wasn’t sure was going to be good for me. I’d get no justice and it would possibly cause more problems. Or they might not do anything at all. I opted to leave the police out of it and the school said they’d support me either way.
Obviously this was a bad experience for me. Especially seeing as I’d only been in the country a couple of months, had rubbish Indonesian language skills and was still in the intense settling in process having moved to a third world country. I’d just taken on a new job with entirely new people and my usual support networks were far, far away. This was bad for me, but what about other women who experience assault here?
I had access to strong support networks that helped me when I asked. I am a strong, independent person who can handle myself. I can’t imagine how less strong people cope with sexual assault, or cope with an assault much worse or more violent than mine. I can’t even fathom how you recover from rape, but I know that plenty of amazing women do it.
What about the women who have no one to go to? No one who will help them?
The police aren’t really interested in such cases here, so going to the authorities makes little to no difference in the lives of sexual assault victims. I suspect it actually makes it worse. If your husband or someone you know is violent towards you and you have them arrested and beaten, they’re going to come back to you after one night in a cell even angrier than before. I can see how that is a deterrent to informing on someone who hurts you. Although the more likely scenario is that nothing happens at all.
I’m going to tell you two very sad, but not rare stories. A friend’s 14 year old neighbour was attacked earlier this year by a man who tried to rape her. The girl’s family caught him in the act and beat him senseless, as normally happens in this culture. The perpetrator’s family then demanded monetary compensation for the injuries this man sustained in the beating. The victim’s family ended up paying him money (although not as much as he’d asked for) because otherwise they would have been constantly harassed and couldn’t get rid of them any other way. The victim did not go to the police because the police don’t care about such things. They probably wouldn’t have done anything even if they had gone to them.
Another young girl (about twenty) here was living in a kampung (traditional community) where women and men live in separate huts. The women’s hut this girl was staying in was usually full of young girls as the adult women worked during the day. Drunk men would frequently come in and try to have sex with the girls, but apparently it wasn’t impossible to fight them off because the men were so drunk. The girls were usually able to do so, although they often sustained physical injuries. Again, this is quite a common story.
The spread of HIV/AIDS is rampant in this part of the world due to the amount of unprotected sex that happens between multiple partners, but that’s another issue.
This is definitely a patriarchal society and women don’t have a lot of power. If women have little to no power and become victims of sexual violence, then where do they turn for help? Who is there to stand up for them? I had people to stand up for me and I had the ability to stand up for myself without repercussions. Most women here do not have that ability. If a man is physically stronger and no one is willing or able to impose consequences on him, then what is a woman to do?
It’s bad enough to be assaulted once, but what about those women who are stuck in cycles of domestic violence? It’s a common thing here. It’s common enough in Australia and America and many other developed nations. It’s difficult enough to get help and get out of the cycle of violence in places where there are support networks (albeit inadequate ones), but how does someone do that in a third world country with no access to any help at all?
How could she leave when she has no money, no where to go to and no way to care for her children? And forget the practical aspects for a minutes, what about the psychological trauma associated with abuse at the hands of someone who is meant to care for you? How does a person recover from that when there is no one to help them? Abuse does not just inflict physical injuries.
If you have been exposed to cycles of violence your entire life, and it’s normal to see people in them, then why would you think that it could be any different for you? You saw your mother treated badly, you were treated badly as a girl, you get treated badly by your husband, your sons, and your neighbours go through the same thing. How could it be different? And even if you thought it could and should be different, how do you make that happen? What resources are available to you?
Of course I am speaking in generalities. Not all women here are abused and not all women need to be rescued from violent husbands and neighbours, but it is very common that many women have been exposed to some level of violence in their lives.
A friend here was telling me that her white daughter married another white guy here in Indonesia eight years ago. The Indonesian who officiated the certificate signing gave them some marital advice that he gives all newly married couples. He told the husband not to hit his wife with a stick that was too heavy, and he told the wife not to throw hot oil on her husband when she was angry because that just makes things worse. This was not a joke, it was serious advice. I don’t even have the words to respond to this.
I would love to see a ministry here that cares for abused women who have no where to turn. It is such a desperate need. I would also love to see a ministry to the men that shows them how to treat women with respect and love. We must break the cycles of violence.
I am so grateful for the people in my life who stand up for me and take a stand for what is right. We are called on by God to protect the vulnerable and to care for the wounded. We are commanded ‘…to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8)
Who will stand up and do that for these women?
As an addition to this post, let me recommend the documentary by Sarah Ferguson on domestic violence in Australia called ‘Hitting Home’. It airs Tuesday and Wednesday this week on the ABC and the trailer can be seen here:
Here are two recent articles very worth reading too.
Sarah Ferguson on filming ‘Hitting Home’
Jane Caro on why women stay in abusive relationships